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Growing Blueberries

A Gardening Life – July 7th

I picked blueberries yesterday. The early bearing varieties are now filled with large, ripe fruit that needs to be harvested daily. Last year we picked these early berries and looked forward to the others that mature later in July, but we never saw that second and third crop of fruit. The Canadian geese discovered the blueberry patch in the second week of July and the only thing we found in the garden from then on was blue-tinged goose poop.

This year we ordered a large piece of blueberry netting early in the summer. My husband had installed locust posts throughout the blueberry bushes two years ago but the plants were so young then that we didn’t have enough fruit to protect. This spring the plants had been in the ground for four years and it was time to seriously start pruning and protecting the blueberry crop. (More on pruning blueberries below.)  When I saw a catbird sitting on the top of one of the locust posts eyeing the berries, I knew it was time to put on the netting.

The covering has kept the birds away from the fruit but it means that in order to harvest the berries you either have to hunch over or get down at ground level to pick fruit. I decided that sitting among the bushes and picking from below was easier on the back, so I pulled up the netting, dropped to hands and knees and crawled into the blueberry patch.

When I was a girl children were pushed outside after school or in the summer and told not to come back in until meal time. We had to make our fun in the out-of-doors, and a good amount of time was spent hanging out in trees or under shrubbery. The neighbors’ bushes became our forts and clubhouses. A climbable tree was turned into a shady refuge or imaginary dwelling. Fifty years later I sat eye to eye with my blueberry bushes and was transported back to that time when spending extended periods of time among plants was a magical experience and anything was possible.

I picked blueberries yesterday, but harvested much more than fruit.

This was my view as I sat among my shrubs to harvest the fruit. I could just reach the uppermost berries while sitting, and scooted around from bush to bush on my rear. Once the plants grow taller I'll need to stand. Our locust posts are five feet high...eventually we'll need to do some creative extensions to make them taller. Clay flower pots, perhaps?

This is one day's harvest off of three early-bearing plants. The netting we got bought is very soft and flexible, unlike the standard plastic netting most garden centers carry. The link to where we bought it is above.

Sharing the Wealth
Tips for Success with Blueberries

  • Be sure the pH of your soil is acidic enough to grow blueberries. Have a pH test done by your local cooperative extension service.
  • Plant a variety of bushes that bear during different parts of mid-summer. I bought our bushes from Norse Farm and planted Patriot, Reka, Bluecrop, Blueray, Chandler, and Jersey varieties.
  • If you live in an area where winter moth caterpillars hatch in the spring, spray with spinosad from bud-break until the larvae disappear for the season. Do not spray spinosad on blooming bushes, however, because you don’t want the wet spray to hit foraging bees. Use Bt when shrubs are in flower.
  • Once small shrubs are four years old start spring pruning aggressively. I cut off about 1/3 of the total growth of my shrubs every April. Do this by identifying the biggest, oldest canes and cutting a third of them down to about 6” tall. (Do not prune blueberries by cutting all the growth off the top of the shrub. This will only stimulate growth from just below the cuts. Instead, take out a third of the oldest canes by cutting down low – this will stimulate new canes from below.) After you remove those oldest canes look for crossed branches and remove one of these, then remove any small twigs that are headed into the center of the plant and clip off the end of any long, straight stems.
  • Put netting in place before the fruit ripens. It’s more difficult to control animals who have already gotten into the habit of eating in a particular area.

    7 comments to Growing Blueberries

    • A beautiful, thoughtful piece, C.L. A bonus that it “transported” you to your youth. I really enjoy (most times) being a ground level with the plants and animals.

      And I was wondering how you were going to harvest! Thought you might have installed a section that could be rolled up or opened like a door.

    • Pamela,
      The net can be rolled up at any time – this netting is very soft and workable. I suppose that as the plants get larger one option will be to pull it aside when we need to harvest. Right now, however, sitting in and among the bushes works.

    • Rhian

      All our bushes are loaded with fruit, none quite ready to pick yet though! Some of our plants seem to have some stem blight though with such a wet and warm summer here – we’re hoping they’ll make it through ripening before we cut them back to try and get rid of the fungus……if you have any good (organic) tips for controlling it, i’d be all ears!

    • Rhian,
      I’ve had good luck with using Actinovate on fungal problems. If these were my bushes I wouldn’t hesitate to spray them with this bacteria. Then after harvest you can cut back and spray with lime-sulfur.

    • Rhian

      Thanks CL!

    • We have a strawberry patch we have to protect with netting or all the birds in our neighbourhood would be getting them instead of us. I plan to start two blue berry bushes on our new hugelkultur bed. I imagine I will have to put netting over them as well.

      I have seen ducks and pheasants in our yard but no Canada geese yet.

    • James,
      If you only have two bushes I would plan on netting them in the future. One local farmer doesn’t net his blueberries but he has over 100 plants, so there are plenty of berries for the birds and his customers!